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Jack Nelson interview, Part 4
Nelson, John P. "Jack"
Rogers, Kim Lacy
Kim Lacy Rogers begins the interview by asking John Nelson to overview his legal work with Civil rights Movement activists. Nelson answers that his answer was more "simple and obvious" than her question, and that he had long been interested in Civil rights causes before his involvement. He explains how approached activists protesting at McCrory's department store in New Orleans and identified himself as a lawyer: "And once I did that it was very difficult for me to unidentify myself... I was hooked." Nelson describes the origins of his close partnership with Lolis Elie, who was a classmate and friend of Nelson's brother in law school, both of whom held a study group which often met at the house of Jack Nelson while in law school. He adds that while he did not consider himself a social reformer, "they somehow found me, all in my role as a lawyer." He continues that early in his work "it was the responsibility of the Whites to open the doors, but I did not feel that the Blacks needed any more White leaders." Rogers asks Nelson about his work in the case Lombard vs. Louisiana and how an earlier incarnation of that case was Goldfinch vs. Louisiana changed names. Nelson mentions how he initially informed White clients quietly of his Civil rights work so they could decide whether to stick with Nelson as his lawyer to spare any embarrassment. Nelson begins to discuss his work on the desegregation of Tulane University: "Tulane was the last major university in the world that was segregated," adding that a university in South Africa desegregated before Tulane. He depicts the impetus for the school's desegregation as efforts to retain federal funding. He notes that Paul Tulane's will indicated that the university be designated solely to educate Whites and suggests that university officials encouraged the lawsuit. Nelson notes that "I still can't explain why I took [the case]," adding that he did not make any money from his work on the case. He describes how he utilized a cy-près doctrine to have a judge reinterpret Paul Tulane's intentions and that Skelly Wright's judicial opinion favored Nelson though his successor as judge reversed Wright's initial opinion. Nelson describes his upbringing on Valentine Plantation in Lafourche Parish and his opinion of growing up in segregation, as well as growing up unaware of his own prejudices. He describes how the economist and sociologist Louis Twomey changing his thinking on race and social issues. He describes the Citizens' Council as the "Uptown Klan" and how a friend once tried to convince him to join the group, which he depicts as very influential in the mid-1950s. He details the prominence of Leander Perez in the 1950s: "Leander Perez was the Citizens' Council." Nelson mentions that he filed a libel suit against George Singelman and the Citizens' Committee due to baseless accusations of "communism." Nelson continues to offer examples of how the accusation of being a communist sympathizer was a pervasive threat in New Orleans into the 1950s. Nelson details how in his 1958 campaign for the Orleans Parish School Board he had the accusations of being communist and his Civil rights work used as tools against him. Nelson explained how he countered these accusations in public forums during his campaign - that he went to mass every day, displayed his war medals, and countered that his opponent's daughter was attending a desegregated university in the north.
Amistad Research Center
Box 7, Item 13, Side 1, Kim Lacy Rogers collection, Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
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